Set the Tone, Define the Audience
Yesterday, I read a terrific post on opening hooks by Jennifer Bray Weber over at Musetracks, where the writer talks about grabbing the reader's attention by beginning in the midst of quest or conflict - anything to create a lightning-quick emotional connection with the reader.
The opening lines have another function, too, to set the story's tone. Will it be sassy, whimsical, romantic? Mysterious, foreboding? When the reader flips open to the story's first page, it's an if she's seeing a contract from the author: This Is What You're in For, should you sign on for the experience.
It's a pretty good system, one that, when supported by an appropriate title, cover art, and cover or flap copy, gives the author the best chance of gaining the right audience, the one most likely to enjoy the story offered and (please, oh pretty please) go looking for more books by that same author.
For the purpose of discussion, let's take a look at a couple of opening paragraphs, both from romantic suspense novels published by the same house, same imprint.
From Christie Craig's Weddings Can Be Murder (Love Spell, June 2008):
Yesterday, Carl Hades had been shot at by a man wearing a black thong and a pink silk nightie. Even in his line of work, that was hard for a devout heterosexual male to digest.
I still laugh every time I read that. :)
Here's another, from my upcoming Beneath Bone Lake (Love Spell, June 2009):
The boatman’s paddle dug deep beneath the moss-green surface, biting and twisting like a switchblade’s killing thrust. Pulse thrummed and muscles burned as he dragged the canoe forward, threading through a swamp-dank maze of pale trees, the ghost sentries of a forest flooded years before. Above, the skeletal branches reached skyward into silver, their bony fingers veiled in Spanish moss and predawn mist.
As I mentioned, both books have the same publisher and both could be categorized as romantic suspense. But in terms of style and voice, they couldn't be more different. Christie Craig, a good friend of mine as well as a terrific writer, and I often do book signing events in tandem, and sometimes readers will pick up both of our releases. Because sometimes a body's in the mood to laugh and other times, she's looking for a good scare.
More often, however, we have very different audiences. And that's just fine by both of us. Because the best thing an author can do is give readers a well-defined, consistent, and repeatable reading experience with each book. Although Christie's books have scary moments, the overall emphasis is on romantic comedy. Although my books contain the leavening of humor (often of the dry or black variety), eeriness and emotional drama reign supreme.
So today, I challenge you to look at (or post in the comments section, if you'd like to share) the opening lines of your current work in progress. Then ask yourself, do they not only hook the reader, but offer a representative sample of the book's tone and your own authorial voice.